Careers 10/8/2009

Oct. 5, 2009
Contrary to popular belief, engineering majors have about the same drop-out rate as other disciplines such as those in the liberal arts.

High engineering drop-out rate disputed
Contrary to popular belief, engineering majors have about the same drop-out rate as other disciplines such as those in the liberal arts. However, students almost never transfer into engineering programs once they start a different line of study.

So say new research results from Purdue University. Findings were drawn largely from a database that includes 70,000 engineering students attending nine institutions in the southeastern U.S.

“If you look at who graduates with a degree in social sciences, 50% of them started in social sciences, and for other sciences it’s about 60%. If you look at who graduates with a degree in engineering, however, 93% of them started in engineering. The road is narrow for students to migrate into engineering from other majors,” says Purdue School of Engineering Education Associate Professor Matthew Ohland, the study’s chief author.

One reason for the lack of migration into engineering is that institutions usually do not provide universal prerequisites, such as calculus, which can be applied to engineering, Ohland said.

“At one institution in the database, everybody takes the same calculus course. There isn’t calculus for business, or calculus for the life sciences, and this makes it much easier for students to transfer to engineering later in their academic careers. Most institutions, unfortunately, don’t do it this way, meaning you’d have to take calculus over again if you wanted to transfer into engineering, and this discourages students from switching,” Ohland said.

Implicit stereotype data,

Male stereotypes in science called widespread
Both men and women in many countries equate science with males. And these stereotypes may have a powerful effect on gender equity in science and mathematics performance, says a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The international study involved more than half a million participants in 34 countries. In countries whose citizens stereotyped most strongly, boys achieved at a higher level in eighth-grade science and math.

Says lead investigator Brian Nosek, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, “We correlated our data with a measure of actual science achievement among eighth-graders in those 34 countries and found the countries with the largest sex gap — where the boys were performing much better than girls in math and science — also had the strongest implicit stereotyping of science as a male endeavor.”

Among nations represented in the study, the U.S. falls roughly in the middle of the pack in stereotyping science as male, and in the actual achievement of boys compared to girls at the eighth-grade level.

“We believe that implicit stereotypes and sex gaps in science achievement are mutually reinforcing mechanisms,” Nosek said. “When people see patterns, such as men more often working in scientific fields and women more often in non-scientific fields, then a bias may develop in their minds that men may be better equipped to succeed in those fields, and women less so.”

Nosek noted that even as women and girls achieve more success in the sciences, and enter these fields in ever greater numbers, underlying stereotypes that more often link men with science may persist.

Stressed-out people make bad decisions
Stress and distraction can make decision-making less balanced and logical. So says psychologists Jane Raymond and Jennifer L. O’Brien of Bangor University in the U.K. The two conducted a study in which participants earned money by deciding between stimuli — in this case, two pictures of different faces. It was immediately clear if they had won, lost, or broken even. Each face was always associated with the same outcome throughout this task. In the next stage of the experiment, the volunteers were shown each face individually and had to indicate whether they had seen those faces before. Sometimes volunteers were distracted during this task while other times they were not.

It turns out that when volunteers were not distracted, they tended to excel at recognizing faces that had been highly predictive of either winning or losing outcomes. But when distracted, they only recognized faces that had been associated with winning. The authors note that when we are stressed and need to make a decision, we are “more likely to bear in mind things that have been rewarding and to overlook information predicting negative outcomes.”

In other words, these findings indicate that irrational biases, which favor previous rewards, may guide our behavior during times of stress.

About the Author

Leland Teschler

Lee Teschler served as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design until 2014. He holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan; a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan; and an MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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